ABSTRACT

Within the now well-established fields of transitional justice, reconciliation and memory studies, academic analysis of ‘post-conflict’ responses usually focuses on the associated institutional ‘innovations’ (Lederach 1999) such as ‘truth telling’ commissions, victim hearings, perpetrator amnesty provisions and various forms of collective memory production. When ‘reconciliation’ processes attempt to accommodate the key concerns such as truth, justice, vengeance and forgiveness, they often utilize a combination of symbolic measures – such as official apologies, commemoration memorials and the like – and more practical measures – such as truth commissions and reparations tribunals – in an attempt to repair societies torn apart by gross human rights violations and/or war. The complexion of reconciliation initiatives will of course vary depending

on the context. For example, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, which suffered acute ruptures over relatively short time frames, exhibited considerable differences in their approach to post-conflict peace-building and reconciliation, but perhaps more significant differences exist between such contexts and the less-spectacular, but more pervasive, long-term colonial ‘conflicts’ between Indigenous peoples and settler states in countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. In the latter contexts, any notion of ‘reconciliation’ that seeks to build a common identity is deeply problematic, given that the Indigenous peoples therein have strongly defended their alterity in the face of hundreds of years of colonization. The ‘re’ in reconciliation seems inappropriate in these contexts, as the two sides were never ‘together’ as such (Short 2005). Australia’s attempt at ‘reconciliation’ is interesting due to the nature of

‘settlement’, the origins of the reconciliation process itself and the official, albeit belated, 2008 apology from the prime minister for the child removal practices which were deemed genocidal by the landmark Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s report – Bringing Them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (HREOC 1997), generally known as Bringing Them Home

(BTH), a report which consequently caused much controversy. The question of genocide in the Australian past, with very few notable exceptions (Barta 1985; Tatz 1999), was only seriously interrogated after the landmark BTH report had been released in the latter half of the ten-year reconciliation process which began with the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act (CARA) 1991.1 The subsequent scholarly works that consider the question of genocide in Australia focused on the ‘dispersal’ extermination campaigns of the 1800s and/or the issue of the ‘Stolen Generations’ (the term commonly used to refer to Indigenous children removed from their communities) (Moses 2004: 16). Much discussion in these studies concerned the ubiquitous problem of genocide scholarship – the search for positive and provable genocidal intent – which is commonly interpreted as a specific intent to destroy a social group because of who they are. Such a focus in the Australian case is perhaps understandable, since in the early years after invasion many Indigenous fatalities were not the direct consequence of an intended policy of extermination. Unknown illnesses such as smallpox accounted for the greatest number, while alcohol, malnutrition, demoralization and despair played their fatal part. Furthermore, it could be argued that the colonizer’s intent was to take over a land, not to eradicate an ethnic or religious group. In this sense, we could say that territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element (Wolfe 2006: 388). Yet, the British desire to plant colonies in Australia meant supplanting the property of Indigenous populations (Barta 2008a: 115), and as Patrick Wolfe (2006: 387) observes, ‘land is life – or, at least, land is necessary for life (and) thus contests for land can be – indeed, often are – contests for life’. The land grab that followed involved significant amounts of violence and population ‘transfers’ of Indigenous groups, such that when considered alongside the effects of illness and malnutrition, it seemed ‘inevitable’ that the Indigenous peoples of Australia would die out and disappear (Barta 2008a). Tony Barta, in a now seminal essay that originally appeared in 1987 and which avoided an overly intentionalist take on the question of genocide in Australian history, argued that ‘it is not too simplistic to see in this dominant opinion (that Indigenous groups would simply “die out and disappear”) the most comfortable ideological reflection of a relationship which could only be recognised in good conscience for what it was – a relationship of genocide’ (Barta 2000: 248). While writers like Barta, Wolfe, and more recently myself (Short 2010),

imply that genocidal structuring dynamics are still at work in Australia,2

present-day Indigenous and non-Indigenous social and political relations – and the colonial structures in which they operate – are rarely discussed through the analytical lens of genocide. Yet, while direct physical killing and genocidal child removal practices may have ceased, some Indigenous people contend that genocide is a continuing process in an Australia that has failed to decolonize and continues to actively promote assimilation.3 Such a contention is predicated on a victim’s understanding of a culturally genocidal dimension of settler colonialism and, in particular, the central importance of

land to Indigenous peoples’ cultural survival as peoples. Such views are in keeping with Raphael Lemkin’s original concept of genocide, that he developed in the 1940s, and appreciate that ‘cultural’ destruction can be a key method of genocide rather than a lesser form of genocide. Moreover, such an understanding appreciates that there is an inherent relationship between colonization and genocide – a point which was central to the work of the term’s originator. Lemkin (1944) titled his book on the Nazi Empire Axis Rule in Occupied

Europe in order to place it, as Dirk Moses points out, in the ‘tradition of criticizing brutal conquests. Indeed, genocide for Lemkin was a special form of foreign conquest and occupation. It was necessarily imperial and colonial in nature. In particular, genocide aimed to permanently tip the demographic balance in favor of the occupier’ (Moses 2008: 9-10). A key strand of recent genocide scholarship focuses on the nexus between colonization processes4

and genocidal practices.5 Lemkin viewed genocide as an ‘intrinsically colonial’ product (Moses 2008: 9), and he clearly appreciated the importance of culture to group life and that destruction of such life would have dire physical consequences – which is especially true of colonized Indigenous peoples. I have argued elsewhere (Short 2010) that a Lemkin-inspired understanding of genocide is an important analytical tool for understanding the situation of Indigenous peoples both historically and also today – not simply because the concept itself has a rich intellectual history, but because it emphasizes what is at stake for many Indigenous peoples in settler colonial contexts, that is, their very survival as distinct peoples. The ‘logic of elimination’ (Wolfe 2006: 387) that informed frontier mas-

sacres in places like Australia and North America, and the assimilationist agendas that emerged when the natives survived the onslaught, can in more recent times be found underpinning settler colonial expansionist land grabs driven by the logic of global capitalism. In the years after 1945, traditional forms of colonial terror transformed into a ‘“genocide machine” as the nature of capitalist domination became less overtly racist and more attuned to … corporate imperatives’ (Davis and Zannis quoted in Moses 2008: 24). Even today, governments frequently dispossess Indigenous groups through industrial mining and farming, but also through military operations and national park schemes – all of which routinely take no account of core Indigenous rights.6